Furman University: Thaddeus Stevens Papers On-line

Thaddeus Stevens: A Leader in Radical Reconstruction


The era of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War did more to shape modern society than any other govern-led endeavor in the nineteenth century. Reconstruction was a wide ranging effort to re-establish the sacred union of the United States that had been divided by the Civil War. The movement was the brainchild of Republican leaders in the federal government. With proposals from a dichotomy of different Congressional leaders, Reconstruction became the most debated political issue in the immediate years following the Civil War.

Some of the most adamant leaders of the Reconstruction movement championed a political policy known as Radical Reconstruction. These political leaders called wholesale changes in the structure (both social and political) of the southern United States. The changes would both punish the region for secession from the Union, while in the process, preventing such atrocities from happening again. One of the more visible voices in Radical Reconstruction was Thaddeus Stevens.

Thaddeus Stevens, a Congressman from the state of Pennsylvania, was a leader of the Republican party during the era. As a former member of the anti-Jacksonian Whig party of the 1840s and 1850s, Congressman Stevens was a firm believer in the political doctrine of republicanism. Like most of his political actions during his tenure in Congress, Stevens applied his republican beliefs to the monumental task of Reconstruction.

The following speech outline Thaddeus Stevens' views on the Reconstruction effort. The speech address a number of issues that were important to the cause of Radical Reconstruction (one of the more important being the re-admittance of Confederate states into the Union). The issues discussed in this speech lay the foundation of Radical Reconstruction during the 1860s and 1870s. The issues of Stevens' "Reconstruction Speech," through its greatly contrasting views to the Democratic and conservative Republican Reconstruction policy, foreshadows the increased polarization of American politics in the coming generations.

Reconstruction Speech of Hon. Thaddeus Stevens, of Pennsylvania Delivered in the House of Representatives, December 18, 1865.

Mr. STEVENS. A candid examination of the power and proper principles of reconstruction can be offensive to no one, and may possibly be profitable by exciting inquiry. One of the suggestions of the message which we are now considering has special references to this. Perhaps it is the principle most interesting to the people at this time. The President assumes, what no one doubts, that the late rebel States have lost their constitutional relations with the Union, and are incapable of representation in Congress, except by permission of the Government. It matters but little, with this admission, whether you call them n States out of the Union, and now conquered territories, or assert that because the Constitution forbids them to do what they did do, that they are therefore only dead as to all national and political action, and will remain so until the government shall breathe into them the breathe of life anew and permit them to occupy their former position. In other words, that they are not out of the Union, but are only dead carcasses lying within the Union. In either case, it is very plain that it requires the action of Congress to enable them to form a State government and send representatives to Congress. No government they can be permitted to claim their old rights under the Constitution. They have torn their constitutional States into atoms, and built on their foundations fabrics of a totally different character. Dead men cannot raise themselves. Dead States cannot restore their own existence "as it was." Whose especial duty is it to do it? In whom does the Constitution place the power? Not in the judicial branch of the Government, for it only adjudicates and does not prescribes laws. Not in the Executive, for he only executes and cannot make the laws. Not in the Commander-in-Chief of the armies, for he can only hold them under military rule until the sovereign legislative power of the conqueror shall give them law.

There is fortunately no difficulty in solving the question. There are two provisions in the Constitution, under one of which the case must fall. The fourth article says:

"New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union."

In my judgment this is the controlling provision in this case. Unless the law of nations is a dead letter, the late war between two acknowledged belligerents severed their original compacts, and broke all the ties that bound them together. The future condition of the conquered power depends on the will of the conqueror. They must come in as new States or remain as conquered provinces. Congress-the Senate and House of Representatives, with the concurrence of the President-is the only power that can act in the matter. But suppose, as some dreaming theorist imagine, that these States have never been out of the Union, but have only destroyed their State governments so as to be incapable of political action: then the fourth section of the fourth article applies, which says:

"The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government."

Who is the United States? Not the judiciary: not the President; but the sovereign power of the people, exercised through their representatives in Congress, with the concurrence of the Executive. It means the political Government-the concurrent action of both branches of Congress and the Executive. The separation action of each amounts to nothing, either in admitting new States or guaranteeing republican governments to lapsed or outlaw States. Whence springs the preposterous idea that either President, or the Senate, the house of Representatives, acting separately, can determine the right of States to send members or Senators to the Con-of the Union?

To prove that they are and for four years have been out of the Union for all legal purposes, and being now conquered, subject to the absolute disposal of Congress, I will suggest a few ideas and adduce a few authorities. If the so-called "Confederate States of America" were an independent belligerent, and were so acknowledged by the United States and by Europe, or had assumed and maintained an attitude which entitled them to be considered and treated as a belligerent, then, during such time, they were precisely in the condition of a foreign nation with whom we are at war; nor need their independence as a nation be acknowledged by us to produce that effect. In the able opinion delivered by that accomplished and loyal jurist, Mr. Justice Grier, in the prize cases, all the law on these points is collected and clearly stated. (2 Black-page 66.) Speaking of civil wars, and following Vattel, he says:

"When the party in rebellion occupy and hold in a hostile manner a certain portion of territory; have declared their independence; have cast off their allegiance; have organized armies; have commenced hostilities against their former sovereign, the world acknowledges them as belligerents, and contest a war."


"The parties belligerents in a public war are independent nations. But it is not necessary, to constitute war, that both parties should be acknowledged as independent nations or foreign States. A war may exist where one of the belligerents claims sovereign rights as against the other."

The idea that the States could not and did not make a war because the Constitution forbids it, and that this must be treated as a war of individuals, is a very injurious and groundless fallacy. Individuals cannot make war. They may commit murder, but that is no war. Communities, societies, States, make war. Phillimore says, volume three, page 68:

"War between private individuals who are members of a society cannot exist. The use of force in such a case is trespass and not war."

But why appeal to reason to prove that the seceded States made war as States, when the conclusive opinion of the Supreme Court is at hand. In the prize cases already cited, the Supreme Court say:

"Hence, in organizing this rebellion, they have acted as States claiming to be sovereign over all persons and property within their respective limits, and asserting a right to absolve their citizens from their allegiance to the Federal Government. Several of these States have combined to form a confederacy, claiming to be acknowledged by the world as a sovereign State. Their rights to do so is now being decided by wager of battle. The ports and territories of each of these States are held in hostility to the General Government. It is no loose, unorganized insurrection, having no defined boundary or possession. It has a boundary marked by lines of bayonets, and which can be crossed only by force. South of this lines of enemies' territory, because it is claimed and held in possession by an organized hostile and belligerent power."

Again, the court say, what I have been astonished that any one should doubt:

"The proclamation of blockade is itself official and conclusive evidence to the court that a state of war existed."

Now, what was the legal result of such war?

"The conventions, the treaties made with a nation are broken and annulled by war arising between the contracting parties."-Vattel, 372; Halleck, 371, section 23.

If gentlemen suppose that this doctrine applies only to national and not to civil wars, I beg leave to refer them to Vattel, page 423. He says:

" A civil war breaks the bands of society and government, or at least suspends their force and effect; it produces in the nation two independent parties, who consider each other as enemies, and acknowledge no common judge. These two parties must therefore be considered as thencefoward constituting, at least for a time, two separate bodies; two distinct societies. They stand, therefore, in precisely the same predicament as two nations who engage in contest, and being unable to come to an agreement, have recourse to arms."

At page 427:

" And when a nation becomes divided into two parties absolutely independent, and no longer acknowledge a common superior, the state is dissolved, and the war between the two parties stands on the same ground, in every respect, as a public war between two different nations."

But must the belligerent be acknowledged as an independent nation, as some contend? That is answered in the case referred to in 2 Black, as follows:

"It is not the less a civil war, with belligerent parties in hostile array, because it may be called an 'insurrection' by one side, and the insurgents be considered as rebels or traitors. It is not necessary that the independence of the revolted province or State be acknowledged in order to constitute it a party belligerent in a war, according to the law of nations."

This doctrine, so clearly established by publicists, and so distinctly stated by Mr. Justice Grier, has been frequently reiterated since by the Supreme Court of the United States. In Mrs. Alexander's case, 2 Wallace, 419, the present able Chief Justice, delivering the opinion of the court, says:

"We must be governed, by the principle of public law so often announced from this bench as applicable to civil and international wars, that all the people of each State or District in insurrection against the United States must be regarded as enemies until by the action of the Legislature and Executive, or otherwise, that relation is thoroughly and permanently changed."

After such clear and repeated decisions it is something worse than ridiculous to hear men of respectable standing attempting to nullify the law of nations, and declare the Supreme Court of the United States in error, because, as the Constitution forbids it, the States could not go out of the Union in fact. A respectable gentlemen was lately reciting this argument, and when suddenly stopped, and said: "Did you hear of that atrocious murder committed in our town? A rebel deliberately murdered a Government official." The person addressed said, "I think you are mistaken." "How so, I saw it myself." "You are wrong; no murder was or could be committed; for the law forbids it."

The theory that the rebel States, for four years a separate power and without misrepresentation in Congress, were all the time here in the Union, is a good deal less ingenious and respectable than the metaphysics of Berkeley, which proved that neither the world nor any human being was in existence. If this theory were simply ridiculous it could be forgiven; but its effect is deeply injurious to the stability of the nation. I cannot doubt that the late Confederate States are out of the Union to all intents and purposes for which the conqueror may choose so to consider them.

But on the ground of estoppel, the United States have the clear right to elect, to adjudge them out of the Union. They are estopped both by matter of record and matter of in pais. One of the first resolutions passed by seceded South Carolina in January, 1861, is as follows:

"Resolved, unanimously, That the separation of South Carolina from the Federal Union is final, and she has no further interest in the Constitution of the United States; and that the only appropriate negotiations between her and the Federal Government are as to their mutual relations as foreign States."

Similar resolutions appear upon all their State and confederate government records. The speeches of their members of congress; their generals and executive officers, and the answers of their government to our shameful sueing for peace, went upon the defiant ground that no terms would be offered or received except upon the prior acknowledgment of the entire and permanent independence of the Confederate States. After this, to deny that we have a right to treat them as a conquered belligerent, severed from the Union in fact, is not argument but mockery. Whether it be our interest to do so is the only question hereafter and more deliberately to be considered.

But suppose this powerful but now subdued belligerent, instead of being out of the Union, is merely destroyed, and is now lying about, a dead corpse, or with animation so suspended as to be incapable of action, and wholly unable to heal themselves by any unaided movements of their own. Then they may fall under the provision of the Constitution, which says "the United States shall guaranty to every State in the Union a republican form of government." Under that power can the judiciary, or the President, or the Commander-in-Chief of the army, or the Senate or House of Representatives, acting separately, restore them to life and readmit them to the Union? I insist that if each acted separately, though the action of each was identical with all the others, it would amount to nothing. Nothing but the joint action of the two Houses of Congress and the concurrence of the President could do it. If the Senate admitted their Senators, and the House their members, it would have no effect on the future action of Congress. The Fortieth Congress might reject both. Such is the ragged record of Congress for the last four years.

In Luther vs. Borden, 7 Howard, 1-42, the Supreme Court say:

"Under this article of the Constitution [the one above cited] it rests with Congress to decide what government is the established one in a State. For as the United States guaranty to each State a republican government, Congress must necessarily decide what government is established in the State before it can determine whether it is republican or not."

Congress alone can do it. But Congress does not mean the Senate, or the House of Representatives, and President, all acting severally. Their joint action constitutes Congress. Hence a law of Congress must be passed before any new State can be admitted; or any dead one revived. Until then no member can be lawfully admitted into either House. Hence it appears with how little knowledge of constitutional law each branch is urged to admit members separately from these destroyed States. The provision that "each House shall be the judge of the elections, returns, and qualifications of its own members," has not the most distant bearing on this question. Congress must create States and declare when they are entitled to be represented. Then each House must judge whether the members presenting themselves from a recognized State possess the requisite qualifications of age, residence, and citizenship; and whether the election and returns are according to law. The Houses, separately, can judge of nothing else. It seems amazing that any man of legal education could give it any larger meaning.

It is obvious from all this that the first duty of Congress is to pass a law declaring the condition of these outside or defunct States, and providing proper civil governments for them. Since the conquest they have been governed by martial law. Military rule is necessarily despotic, and ought not to exist longer than is absolutely necessary. As there are no symptoms that the people of these provinces will be prepared to participate in constitutional government for some years. I know of no arrangement so proper for them as territorial governments. There they can learn the principles of freedom and eat the fruit of foul rebellion. Under such governments, while electing members to the Territorial Legislatures, they will necessarily mingle with those to whom Congress shall extend the right suffrage. In territories Congress fixes the qualifications of electors; and I know of no better place nor better occasion for the conquered rebels and the conqueror to practice justice to all men, and to accustom themselves to make and obey equal laws.

As these fallen rebels cannot at their option reenter the heaven which they have disturbed, the garden of Eden which they have deserted, as flaming swords are set at the gates to secure their exclusion, it becomes important to the welfare of the nation to inquire when the doors shall be reopened for their admission.

According to my judgment they ought never to be reorganized as capable of acting in the Union, or of being counted as valid States, until the Constitution shall have been so amended as to make it what its framers intended; and so as to secure perpetual ascendency to the party of the Union; and so as to render our republican government firm and and stable forever. The first of those amendments is to change the basis of representation among the States, from Federal numbers to actual voters. Now all the colored freemen in the slave States, and three fifths of the slaves, are represented, though none of them have votes. The States have nineteen representatives of colored slaves. If the slaves are now free then they can add, for the other two fifths, thirteen more, making the slave representation thirty-two. I suppose the free blacks in those States will give at least five more, making the representation of non-voting people of color about thirty-seven The whole number of representatives now from the slave States is seventy. Add the other two fifths and it will be eighty-eight.

If the amendment prevails, and those States withhold the right of suffrage from persons of color, it will deduct about thirty seven, leaving them but forty-five. With the basis unchanged, the eighty-three southern members, with the Democrats that will in the best time be elected from the North, will always give them a majority in Congress and in the Electoral College. They will at the very first election take possession of the White House and the halls of Congress, I need not depict the ruin that would follow. Assumption of the rebel debt or repudiation of the Federal debt would be sure to follow. The oppression of the freedmen; the reamendment of their State constitutions. and the reestablishment of slavery would be the inevitable result. That they would scorn and disregard their present constitutions, forced upon them in the midst of martial law, would be both natural and just. No one who has any regard for freedom of elections can look upon those governments forced upon them in duress, with any favor. If they should grant the right of suffrage to persons of color, I think there would always be Union white men enough in the South, aided by the blacks, to divide the representation, and thus continue the Republican ascendency. If they should refuse to thus alter their election laws it would reduce the representatives of the late slave States to about forty-five and render them powerless for ever.

It is plain that this amendment must be consummated before the defunct States are admitted to be capable of State action, or it never can be.

The proposed amendment to allow Congress to lay a duty on exports is precisely in the same situation. Its importance cannot well be over-stated. It is very obvious that for many years the South will not pay much under our internal revenue laws. The only article on which we can raise any considerable amount is cotton. It will be grown largely at once. With ten cents a pound export duty it would be furnished cheaper to foreign markets than they could obtain it from any other parts of the world. The late war has shown that. Two million bales exported, at five hundred pounds to the bale, would yield $100,000,000. This seems to be the chief revenue we shall ever derive from the South. Besides, it would be a protection to that amount to our domestic manufactures. Other proposed amendments--to make all laws uniform; to prohibit the assumption of the rebel debt--are of vital importance. and the only thing that can prevent the combined forces of copperheads and secessionists from legislating against the interests of the Union whenever they may obtain an accidental majority.

But this is not all that we ought to do before these inveterate rebels are invited to participate in our legislation. We have turned, or are about to turn, loose four million slaves without a hut to shelter them or a cent in their pockets The infernal laws of slavery have prevented them from acquiring an education, understanding the commonest laws of contract, or of managing the ordinary business of life. This Congress is bound to provide for them until they can take care of themselves. If we do not furnish them with homesteads from forfeited rebel property, and hedge them around with protective laws; if we leave them to the legislation of their late masters, we had better left them in bondage. Their condition would be worse than that of our prisoners at Andersonville. If we fail in this great duty now, when we have the power, we shall deserve and receive the execration of history and of all future ages.

Two things are of vital importance.

1. So to establish a principal that none of the rebel States shall be counted in any of the amendments of the Constitution until they are duly admitted into the family of States by the law-making power of their conqueror. For more than six months the amendment of the Constitution abolishing slavery has been ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the States that acted on its passage by Congress, and which had Legislatures, or which were States capable of acting, or required to act, on the question.

I take no account of the aggregation of white-washed rebels, who without any legal authority have assembled in the capitals of the late rebel States and simulated legislative bodies. Nor do I regard with any respect the cunning byplay into which they deluded the Secretary of State by frequent telegraphic announcements that "South Carolina had adopted the amendment;" "Alabama has adopted the amendment, being the twenty-seventh State;" &c. This was intended to delude the people, and accustom Congress to hear repeated the names of these extinct States as if they were alive; when, in truth, they have no more existence that the revolted cities of Latium, two-thirds of whose people were colonized and their property confiscated, and their right of citizenship withdrawn by conquering and avenging Rome.

It is equally important to the stability of this Republic that, it should now be solemnly decided what power can revive, re-create, and reinstate these provinces into the family of States, and invest them with the rights of American citizens. It is time that Congress should assent its sovereignty and assume something of the diguity of a Roman Senate. It is fortunate that the President invites Congress to take this manly attitude. After stating with great frankness in his able message his theory, which, however, is found to be impracticable, and which I believe very few now consider tenable, he refers the whole matter to the judgment of Congress. If Congress should fail firmly and wisely to discharge that high duty it is not the fault of the President.

This Congress owes it to its own character to set the seal of reprobation upon a doctrine which is becoming too fashionable, and unless rebuked will be the recognized principle of our Government. Governor Perry and other provisional governors and orators proclaim that "this is the white man's Government." The whole copperhead party, pondering to the lowest prejudices of the ignorant, repeat the cuckoo cry, "This is the white man's Government." Demogogues of all parties, even some high in authority, gravely shout, "This is the white man's Government." What is implied by this? That one race of men are to have the exclusive right forever to rule this nation, and to exercise all acts of sovereignty, while all other races and nations and colors are to be their subjects, and have no voice in making the laws and choosing the rulers by whom they are to be governed. Wherein does this differ from slavery except in degree? Does not this contradict all the distinctive principles of the Declaration of Independence? When the great and good men promulgated that instrument, and pledged their lives and sacred honors to defend it, it was supposed to form an epoch in civil government. Before that time it was held that the right to rule was vested in families, dynasties, or races, not because of superior intelligence or virtue, but because of a divine right to enjoy exclusive privileges.

Our fathers repudiated the whole doctrine of the legal superiority of families or races, and proclaimed the equality of men before the law. Upon that they created a revolution and built the Republic. They were prevented by slavery from perfecting the superstructure whose foundation they had thus broadly laid. For the sake of the Union they consented to wait, but never relinquished the idea of its final completion. The time to which they looked forward with anxiety has come. It is our duty to complete their work. If this republic is not now made to stand on their great principles, it has no honest foundation, and the Father of all men will still shake it to its centre. If we have not yet been sufficiently scourged for our national sin to teach us to do justice to all God's creatures, without distinction of race or color, we must expect the still more heavy vengeance of an offended Father, still increasing his inflictions as he increased the severity of the plagues of Egypt until the tyrant consented to do justice. And when that tyrant repented of his reluctant consent, and attempted to re-enslave the people, as our Southern tyrants are attempting to do now, he filled the Red sea with broken chariots and drowned horses, and strewed the shores with dead men's carcasses.

Mr. Chairman, I trust the Republican party will not be alarmed at what I am saying. I do not profess to speak their sentiments, nor must they be held responsible for them. I speak for myself, and take the responsibility, and will settle with my intelligent constituents.

This is not a "white man's Government," in the exclusive sense in which it is used. To say so is political blasphemy, for it violates the fundamental principles of our gospel of liberty. This is man's Government; the Government of all men alike; not that all men will have equal power and sway within it. Accidental circumstances, natural and acquired endowment and ability, will vary their fortunes. But equal rights to all the privileges of the Government, is innate in every immortal being, no matter what the shape or color of the tabernacle which he inhabits.

If equal privileges were granted to all, I should not expect any but white men to be elected to office for long ages to come. The prejudice engendered by slavery would not soon permit merit to be preferred to color. But it would still be beneficial to the weaker races. In a country where political divisions will always exist, their power, joined with just white men, would greatly modify, if it did not entirely prevent, the injustice of majorities. Without the right of suffrage in the late slave States, (I do not speak of the free States,) I believe the slaves had far better been left in bondage. I see it stated that very distinguished advocates of the right of suffrage lately declared in this city that they do not expect to obtain it by Congressional legislation, but only by Administrative action, because, as one gallant gentleman said, the States had not been out of the Union. Then they will never get it. The President is far sounder than they. He sees that Administrative action has nothing to do with it. If it ever is to come, it must be by Constitutional amendments or Congressional action in the Territories, and in enabling acts.

How shameful that men of influence should mislead and miseducate the public mind! They proclaim, "This is the white man's Government," and the whole coil of copperheads echo the same sentiment, and upstart, jealous Republicans join the cry. Is it any wonder ignorant foreigners and illiterate natives should learn this doctrine, and be led to despise and maltreat a whole race of their fellow-men?

Sir, this doctrine of a white man's Government is as atrocious as the infamous sentiment that damned the late Chief Justice to everlasting fame; and, I fear, to everlasting fire.

Transcribed by LeRoy Butler and reversed-order proofread by Jeff Douglass, Furman University, from the Thaddeus Stevens Papers.